By Taylor Anderson, Explorebigsky.com Editorial Assistant

During the first senatorial debate between Sen. Jon Tester, Rep. Denny Rehberg and Dan Cox, a Ravalli County Libertarian, one thing was made perfectly loud and clear: This election, one of the most heated in a gargantuan election year, will not bring any new rhetoric to the table.

It’s an interesting thought, given Montana’s Senate seat could be make or break for which party runs Congress. But the two main party candidates are playing old cards in a state whose middle ground is looking to follow a leader.

I was on the three-person panel for that June 16 debate, alongside Nick Ehli, managing editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Jan Anderson, editor of the Boulder Monitor.

My first question, initially directed at Rehberg, asked how he planned to ensure students can expect student loan rates to keep from rising after they leave school. The answers I got from each candidate were cookie cutter responses that could have been lip-synched by the audience.

“The cost of tuition is something that we need to be concerned with,” Rehberg said. “The fact that our graduating seniors are getting out, and one out of two are having a difficult time finding a job is a different part of that.”

In laymen’s terms: We need to fix the economy so students cay pay their loans.

“We have a package that’s over the Senate, we hope the Senate will join in and solve this issue before it becomes a crisis.”

Again: The other side is at fault if rates rise.

Tester countered, pointing out that Rehberg’s view hurts everyone when he suggests we should pay for keeping the rates down by taking money from the health care bill.

Alluding to the House-passed bill, Tester said, “Unfortunately to pay for that, they took it away from health care prevention mostly focused on women. That’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. You can’t do that.”

In laymen’s terms: I am the candidate to vote for if you’re a woman. I’m a middle class American.

Tester went on to talk about subsidizing education as an investment, expecting out of it a generation of middle and upper class workers that will be able to pay back the subsidies with high-wage jobs.

But this isn’t a two-person race, and Dan Cox, the third candidate, reminded the audience he’s read the U.S. Constitution, and nowhere in that document is there a guarantee for helping students go to college. He compared student loans to the housing bubble before it burst, and warned that if the government doesn’t get out of education, it will cause another meltdown.

Hark! Something new. Something the others should probably address. Students are racking up thousands in debt to obtain a degree that’s not returning the favor anymore. And that’s bad.

Although that, too, could have been guessed right out of Cox’s mouth, the third-party candidate does bring some spunk to the monotony. If there is a chance for new rhetoric, Cox may be the one to bring it.

Before the end of that debate, the Tester campaign sent out 15 press releases all declaring he had, in essence, won the debate.

In truth it wasn’t a debate; it was instead two candidates appearing in front of a crowd together. Nothing new was brought up, and no real combat came to light. If that doesn’t change, this election will remain a coin flip come November, with the middle ground leaning toward Rehberg.

If Tester wants a shot, he’s going to need to put on his big boy boxing gloves.

The top three issues for each candidate as of July 2012:

Tester:

1. Rehberg supports the unpopular Citizens United ruling.
2. Rehberg is a “mansion rancher,” a wealthy developer and not a middle-class Montanan.
3. Tester is a rancher who knows what’s best for Montanans.

Rehberg:

1. Democrats haven’t passed a budget in more than 1,000 days.
2. President Obama’s policies are jobs-killers, and Tester has voted for them 95 percent of the time.
3. The Affordable Care Act is a jobs killer, bad for Montanans, and needs to be repealed.

Cox:

1. Get the federal government off the backs of people and businesses.
2. The federal government (but not necessarily state government) is creating more bubbles similar to the ones created before the recession.
3. I’m not going to win, but I’d like to open the eyes of Montanans and shake up the two-party mindset.